In mid-May, with Dubai reeling from the effects of the global financial crisis, I flew into town and took a taxi down the Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main thoroughfare, which runs parallel to the Persian Gulf. The evening rush hour had not ended, but the road was clear of traffic; during previous visits to Dubai I’d encountered gridlock day and night all along this highway. As we approached downtown Dubai, we ran a long gauntlet of illuminated skyscrapers, all built during the past few years. Covered with garish architectural flourishes, many were unfinished, with exposed steel girders and cranes frozen above them; almost all displayed TO LET signs in their windows.
Just beyond this cluster I could see the Burj Khalifa, a tapering cylinder of aluminum and glass that rises 2,500 feet above the city—the tallest skyscraper in the world. Emaar, the government-owned real estate empire that built it, had conferred upon it the slogan “I am the power that lifts the world’s head proudly skyward, surpassing limits and expectations.” But the Burj will also be linked forever to Dubai’s recent setbacks. The tower was originally called the Burj Dubai, but the name had been changed before its January 2010 opening to honor the president of the United Arab Emirates and emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Dubai, with a population of some two million people, is one of the seven federated emirates on the Persian Gulf, each run by a sheikh, and oil-rich Abu Dhabi is Dubai’s largest neighbor. Its sheikh had come to Dubai’s rescue last year with a total of $25 billion in emergency loans. “Sheikh Khalifa saved Dubai,” my taxi driver, a Pakistani, told me; but still “many people have been forced to leave,” he said. “The situation is very bad.”
We turned off Sheikh Zayed Road and entered Jumeirah, one of the city’s oldest and richest neighborhoods, the land of “Jumeirah Janes,” the emirate’s wealthy expatriates. Here were villas hidden behind high walls—including the late Benazir Bhutto’s home in exile—and quiet lanes lined with date palm trees. Just off the beach, the Burj al-Arab, a white, sail-shaped hotel, rose on a small artificial island, with $30,000-a-night suites, a fifty-sixth-floor helicopter pad, and Rolls-Royces shuttling guests down the causeway to the hotel entrance. Its image is much used to promote Dubai. When the hotel opened, in 1999, the Guardian’s architecture critic described it as “fabulous, hideous, and the very pinnacle of tackiness—like Vegas after a serious, no-expense-spared, sheik-over.” The world’s only “seven-star hotel”—which reportedly has never made a profit—competes with several other hugely expensive hotel-resorts, many of them now short of customers.
My destination was far more modest: an $80-a-night bed-and-breakfast near Jumeirah Beach. Dubai’s sheikhs have discouraged such guesthouses, apparently to divert foreign visitors to its pricey resorts. But the owners had…
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